While theologians of all stripes have ceaselessly struggled over the central meaning and message of Ecclesiastes, the variety of topics occurring in somewhat discernable patterns is not in dispute. From the brevity and apparent absurdity of life to work and the leveling experience of death, Qoheleth’s ‘strange and disquieting’ voice has, while confounding sages, also strengthened the faithful in the face of life’s transience and uncertainties. Perhaps commentator Michael V. Fox is right to note these very qualities are the reason that Ecclesiastes is liturgically read on the last day of the Feast of Sukkot, people in temporary dwellings rejoicing in God’s mercy. The world is not static, but ‘a ship on a passage out, and not a voyage complete, and the pulpit is its prow.’ With ‘the Preacher’ (Qoheleth) leading the way, such subjects as injustice, love, sex, war, endless cycles of life and generations, hope, gain, pleasure, death, and faith can be explored with wisdom tagging along to shout encouragement.
While Moby Dick is my second favorite American novel, followed quickly by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Ivan Doig’s English Creek (we’d have to venture to Britain and Russia for further literary lists), the top of the stack in my library is now and has been for twenty years, Jayber Crow, the masterful unfolding of the human experience written by Kentucky author, farmer, and contrarian Wendell Berry. I moved to the Bluegrass state in 1987 and quickly fell for the humor, devotion, and colloquial common sense in the essays, poems, and stories of this remarkable writer. ‘Crow’ came out much later, but by then, calling the Commonwealth ‘home’ for eighteen years meant that I could hear the rural Kentucky accents of the colorful characters that made up the Port William ‘membership’ and these voices became my instructors.
By them, Berry taught me a proper love of this world and made of me a gardener, albeit an impatient and not always fruitful practitioner of the art. Perhaps more than anything else, Berry – who can be remarkably judgmental in ways, especially touching on the abuse of the land and the misuse of people, two matters inextricably linked together – taught me mercy. It is this quality that I find most on display in the narrative of ‘Jayber Crow’, a reminder that I’d rather be infinitely more like the barber in Port William than ‘Brother Whipsnade, one of the crossest of Christians.’
Mercy is writ large across the pages of Jayber Crow, in humorous, honest assessments of people – ‘Uncle Stanley had no more sense of privacy than a fruit jar’ – and understated awareness of sins and peccadillos – ‘I became over the years a pretty good student of family traits: the shapes of heads…and so forth. This was sometimes funny, as when I would get a suspicion of a kinship that was, you might say, unauthorized’ – to the tears and pain of love and death in honest self-awareness – ‘I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, ‘Good-good-good-good-good!’ like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.’ It is this honest reflection that leads at last to a prayer, sighed heavenward after surveying the lives – the graces and graves – of his friends and family: ‘Have mercy.’ This late in life reflection is an echo of the truth gained earlier in the cemetery, in the house of mourning: “The people there had lived their little passage of time in this world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy…some were there who has served the community better by dying than by living. Why I should have felt tender toward them at all was not clear to me, but I did.”
It is perhaps in that self-awareness and faith in the face of despair that I find at least in Jayber (if not in Berry himsef) a hint of Qoheleth’s wisdom.
I do not mean to say in this brief essay that Jayber is serving as the interpretive lens through which we might understand Ecclesiastes, or that Berry had Ecclesiastes in view as he wrote it (though I wouldn’t put that past his nimble theological mind). I take the author’s warning to heart –
Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
Nevertheless, the many subjects that Qoheleth explores are the fabric of the tapestry Berry weaves in the life of Jayber Crow. When an author puts words like ‘What can’t be helped must be endured’ into the story of a grave-digging, theological, head-examining, churchwarden, he invites comparisons. In doing so, I do think it is fair to say that Berry would be happy for Jayber, the once aspiring theological student at Pigeonville College who concluded he didn’t, after all, have ‘the call’ due to the fact that he had more questions than answers, who would eventually serve as church caretaker and gardener of souls, to turn ‘preacher’ and proclaim the sermon on the mount to a hate-filled customer in his barber chair, bringing his vengeance to heel. Jayber had always loved Jesus even if he didn’t get along too well with Paul.
Because Jayber’s story begins with the death of his parents during the Spanish Flu pandemic in the terrible winter 1918, it seems an even more fitting tale to read again just now. I believe its wisdom would help many as a bridge to the Bible, to the other side of the rest of their lives, to the road back home, just as Jayber crossed the bridge in Louisville over the crashing and thrashing waters of the flood that could just as easily have swept him away. “I’ve got to get to my people down the river” is the heart-cry of every orphaned soul in our caretaker, death soaked society. “Everything came turning in the currents, into sight and then out of sight almost faster than I could believe. Along what had been the shores I could see the trees shaking and battering their limbs together. And the waves and swirls of the water caught the human lights of the town and flung them hither and yon. And this is what it was like—the words were just right there in my mind, and I knew they were true: ‘the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’…after all the years of reading in that book and hearing it read and believing and disbelieving it, I seemed to have wandered my way back to the beginning – not just of the book, but of the world – and all the rest was yet to come.” It is a journey home to ‘our people’ that we all seem to long for, and that, finally, we all take, whether by life or by death.
In terms of life, it is both heaven and hell, as Berry has Jayber confess about his own story. “This is a book about heaven. I know it now. It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know, the least to be captured…I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell – where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another… but the earth speaks to us of heaven, or why would we want to go there?” Qoheleth would concur, and, faced with the prospect of uncertainty and despair, no doubt issue an invitation to ‘A Little Worter Dranking Party’ There are good reasons for attending, as the ‘worter’ will no doubt be solace in the storm of life’s unending cycles of ordinary injustices, work, and loss.
Do we sense that our lives, and the life of the world, are merely cyclical? On the surface the conclusion is undeniable. Roy Overhold embodied that phenomenon. “Roy was about as ordinary as a man could be… Roy was showing some wear, and he was a baldy like me… what he was already, he was going to be.’ Roy’s wife Cecelia was a proud, high-brow woman from Hargrave and a churchgoer. She married Port William’s ordinary Roy, thinking he’d be malleable and that she could change him; he was not; she could not; she ended up disappointed in him. As might we all, with life, if we are proud, church-going people, without the good sense to know the world.
But it is in death and resurrection that our deepest humanity is seen, and this is repeated throughout Jayber’s story, just as the question of the eternal and what makes us really ourselves arises time and time again in the Bible. As the grave-digger, Jayber had plenty of opportunities to muse on death and the afterlife. “I am as mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not seen. I understand that people’s bodies are not exactly them, and yet as I dug down to where they were, I would be mindful of them, and respectful, and would feel a curious affection for them all.”
Whether one reads Fidelity or Pray Without Ceasing or Jayber Crow, one is struck immediately by Berry’s persistent focus on the passage of time over many generations, and how we are part of one another’s stories. Our radical individualism is, along with our unrestrained acquisitions and despoiling of the earth in the name of progress, a frequent target of Berry. It is a target-rich environment. Yet it is with tender arrows that the author takes aim to strike the heart of the reader and bring us home from our prodigal wanderings. This is a homecoming that is a celebration, a re-uniting of a severed bond, a re-integration into a whole we’d lost in the pursuit of understanding our part. Might not words of kindness and love once again cause people to reflect on the narrow confines of a high-rise isolated life, surrounded by the void? Clearly Berry hopes so.
The ‘membership’ is no utopia. It is not for Jayber a ‘gathered church’ (that might be too saintly), but it is a gathered community of the imperfect and impervious, the ignorant and indifferent, just as it is the community of the gracious, the loved, and the loving. “And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said, we may be perfected by grace.”
Jayber notes that every community has ‘rememberers’ who help the new to enter into the story of the place they dwell, just as Mat Feltner had done for him. Reflecting on the reality of being rooted in a place through the work of the ‘rememberers’, Jayber observes, ‘History overflows time. Love overflows the allowance of the world…nothing is ever lost and we are compacted together forever, even by our failures, our regrets, and our longings… we were all on a little wave of time lifting up to eternity, and none of us in time would know what to make of it.” Indeed. “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”
I would not mind writing more on this theme, but I have to get back to my house and my garden. There are potatoes to harvest this afternoon, and I expect a good many as well. Reds and Blues and Yellows. They were planted in faith, hope, and love. They will be harvested and received with joy.
I hope that will be true for us all in the end.
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